Confessions of an ageing boy racer

From Mini 850 to Porsche Turbo via the pen

Since W.B. has now realised where many of the high performance test vehicles are disappearing to I felt it would be dangerous to actually list the cars I drove for Motor Sport last year, preferring to confuse the issue by recounting some of the interesting moments I have enjoyed in a variety of cars, quite a few of them not intended specifically for this magazine, or indeed for any publication because kind friends outside the business often come up with interesting machinery as well. It happens that 1976 was a terrific year for driving high performance cars so far as I was concerned. Since that trend has continued this year, I thought it worthwhile to see how a teenage boy racer survived 10 years in the business, becoming what is politely referred to as a 30-year-old enthusiast, but that really amounts to an older boy racer.

My first motoring job was with a magazine famous for its tuning interests, especially in Minis. This meant I had to drive just about every twist to the Issigonis theme. As an apprenticeship my then-employers selected a brake-less Mini 1275S of breathtaking performance, and a supercharged Mini 850. Having stayed alive in both—the editor of that journal eventually ended up parked on an Essex roundabout when he made the retardation discovery at a terminal speed of some 60 m.p.h.—I was allowed to tackle a variety of maligned machinery, and compete in autocross with a rough looking, but effective, Emery GT. That was an Imp with the roof sawn off and replaced very much closer to the driver’s head.

There was a Jaguar 3.8 that a gentleman of extreme humour had attacked, sawing the rear half clean off, substituting a giassfibre chicken-hut, and inserting a tuned E-type engine in the front. Naturally he equipped this device with huge racing tyres of near-slick pattern. This made its behaviour in the wet strongly akin, in terms of luck/skill needed to hold it on a suburban greasy street, to walking the greasy pole, with hands tied behind your back. The savaged Jaguar closed its period with the magazine when a door opened on the test track and dumped my attractive secretary on the circuit.

Occasionally they would let me out in civilised cars, but my real pleasure was works cars, which were usually rally models of things like the Cortina Mk. 2 or the Mini Cooper S, but I did climb to the dizzy heights of running a Sebring MG-B GT on the road when Peter Browning was not looking. As the sixties closed the cars started getting better on the tuned front. No longer did every third car have to be towed from our Surrey track (same one as this company uses today), back along the M4. Even the redoubtable staff of a firm we nick-named “Cock-up Impairments” started putting in the right equipment with their tuned engines. Thus printing acceleration graphs labelled 0 m.p.h.-Explosion became a memory.

Respectability dawned not long after marriage, but with respectability I became surplus to requirements. Who needed a 21-yearold teenager? The answer, to my astonishment, came in the form of our sister paper Motoring News. They needed enthusiasm, and the tuners had grown so respectable that I was to he permitted to also contribute a Tuning Test per month for Motor Sport. The cars improved sharply thereafter and I think only one—a hybrid 3-litre Capri, actually stopped running on the road, and that was when the speedometer drive dropped in the gearbox.

It was through a tuner, Janspeed in Salisbury, that I got involved in competition again. Jan was determined to beat Ford at their own game with an Avenger of sufficient urge and handling ability to cope with the Escort Twin Cam. He succeeded in doing this in road terms, and promptly entered me for what was my first race. Jan was unaware of this fact. When I emerged from an eight-car brawl for the finish, with most of the lamp glass smashed, he enquired why I hadn’t pushed a little harder for a better place. “Oh I thought I might not get my first signature”, I replied. There was a very, very long pause of the kind I was to later encounter more frequently from the rugged Hungarian. Then a shout of laughter as he said, “Next time you got to bloody win boy!” We nearly did, but the throttle cable fell off the accelerator pedal, so it was a third. However, that got me involved with Jan for the following year. Originally we were going to run an Avenger, but Jan was disputing the business side of what was to become the Tiger model, and we wound up with a Ford Escort Sport. We ran this all over the country in two championships and did well with it In over 30 races it only failed to finish three times: each time I had an accident: thus the longer arid longer silences, after which you had to win next time! That got me into a ride with BMW (GB) at Spa. This was a bit of an embarrassment as I was scheduled to join Ford’s Competition Department as a Public Relations man.

Ford forbade any kind of racing, though they did let me finish my British Championship rounds. At one of these I got wedged in behind my chief class rival and he started spinning, or I started pushing him at Druids. Naturally Standard House had a photographer there and the incident was recorded for my bosses to read about the following week: it was definitely a “No Racing Situation” after that!

So I passed away two years at Ford, but I still drove a lot of cars. My favourite competition one was LVX 942 J, the 2-litre, alloy-engined RS1600 driven by Clark to victory on the 1972 RAC Rally, and which won 99% of events it was ever entered for with Clark at the wheel. I drove that car back from Scotland, collecting a £7 speeding fine while a certain now-famous rally driver scarpered into the distance in another team car at huge speed! I cannot recall any major bother with it during subsequent demonstrations and, of course, it was enormous fun to drive.

Other notable machinery during my sojourn comprised a turbocharged 3-litre Cortina— which was magnificent over Salisbury Plain and suited for Q-car commuting, being painted in some drab bronze “repping” colour, and the ill-starred GT70. The latter had a German 2.6 V6 unit installed when I drove it, and was in very poor health. However, I did think it was a sensible size and had good potential. The problem, ironically, in a Ford context, was that they did not have the money to develop it at the time. I also remember the late Gerry Birrell making some hilariously funny comments about GT70 handling which cost him a good sports car ride when a designer overheard the tale!

I think it was a very sobering experience (no pun intended) to deal with the motoring press as a servant rather than as a privileged Press man, but when it came down to it I enjoyed privilege more than money; So I returned to a job at Standard House, where I was allowed to roam over a wider spread of activities than before.

The exotic period in my life began before a Motoring News colleague left to work in PR at Porsche Cars. Even when he knew that job was his, he let me drive the Turbo demonstrator at our twisty test track, sitting with fixed grin alongside while the then sixteen-and-three-quarter-thousand-pound car plunged through our Snake Mountain handling course at incredible angles on those huge ultra low-profile Pirellis. At that stage the Turbo was definitely a point and squirt device, but when I had the new demonstrator tested by Jenks in Motor Sport’s February issue, I found the Turbo had been quietly transformed. The price had increased by over £4,412 in this case and at the same time the car had become a lot more manageable. The best torque output seems strategically placed in the 2,000-5,000 r.p.m. band with the aid of revised boost characteristics for the turbocharger. I also found it a lot easier to control the car safely during hard cornering.

The year continued on the same exotic note that has carried on to 1977. I have had the opportunity of comparing BMW’s 633 CSi with Jaguar’s 4.2 C, winding up by taking the Jaguar to the Savoy for a BMW function and feeling very proud of the white British coupe in the process. I had a short time on a wet track with the Ferrari 308 GTB, and obviously enjoyed a freedom to explore the 120 m.p.h. fourth gear potential and the high-speed handling rather more than D.S.J. could during an equally wet, but trafficinfested period on public roads.

By contrast there was nearly a week to spend with a Stratos on loan from Chequered Flag and I tried to ensure that the car spent very little time sitting still. In terms of noisy exhilaration the Stratos is very like a roofed-in Lotus 7. The Lancia was beautifully prepared, but I took a pretty scruffy Corvette at very short notice that was generously loaned to fill some blank pages. This bright yellow monster of 7-litres attracted a very nice offer from Mr. A.J. (Tony) Vlassopulos to try his later version, and it also attracted more complimentary and informative mail than anything else I covered last year for Motor Sport, which was quite a surprise. As to the car itself, the basic idea of a lazy V8 supplying astonishing (to feel, not as an engineering feat) acceleration in a vehicle of great creature comforts and easy-going manners had a unique charm.

Looking at my rough notes I see that I drove at least 68 cars, and these are only culled from brief diary notes, and do not include my personal transport(s), a 34,000 mile Lancia Beta Coupe 1600 and a 30,000 mile Escort 1300 GT Estate. Through the grace of the Metropolitan Police I did escape prosecution last year whilst covering over 30,000 public road miles.

Looking at the cars I have really enjoyed I could see a feeling of “if it’s expensive and thirsty and exotic, he likes it”. Well, it was possible to have fun in competition for less than you would expect. I drove a couple of Mazda RX2s (obsolete 2,3-litre rotaries) and found them competitive (third in class on one Radio 1 outing) and I doubt whether either represented £1,000 outlay; in fact one of them was definitely converted for under £500 and a lot of DIY. Track tests, or race outings, also came in a Renault 5 at Hockenheim, Lola’s sports/racing 2-litre and Super Vee. I liked Hawker’s DFVW the best because of the fabulous power still on tap at over 100 m.p.h., but I got most satisfaction for the ego from the Super Vee. I would still be out there circling round Oulton Park if I could find a way, of making VW pay! I drove many more track cars last year but there’s enough “there I was” motoring in this article already. Suffice to say a humble “thank you” to those who loaned me such Interesting machinery.

Rally cars were a little more of a rarity in 1976 than 1975. This was primarily because of the pre-occupation of trying to assemble my own Group I RS2000, on which I spent a disproportionate amount of time for just four outings. The car finished all three rough road rallies, but I crashed it on the loose on the Tour of Britain and it spent the rest of the year being repaired by volunteers at Reed Rallye Sport in Torquay. The most satisfying outing concerned an event near Newcastle called the Hadrian Centurion, which consisted of 50 fast miles over the army ranges at Otterburn, and a similar distance through the forest tracks at Keilder, which were in fabulous condition earlier last year. I hit a bridge parapet on the second stage, but from then on we pounded on to finish 13th, 3rd in class. Since this involved catching one or two cars up on most stages, and the event was successfully judged for Castrol Championship status, there really was a feeling that the Escort project was going somewhere. However I never mastered the art of gathering effective sponsorship and I had to rely far too heavily on Ford and the bank manager. As I write this still have the car in its Tour of Britain guise with a 161 b.h.p. Group 1 (over £1,000-worth of engine alone) punch that offers 120 m.p.h. and acceleration from rest to 60 m.p.h. in just over 8 sec. The combination of good torque, from 2,500 r.p.m., and sheer excitement generated in exploring the ear’s agile handling, while winding towards the 7,000 r.p.m. limit, will remain with me for years.

In direct contrast I spent another enjoyable week at 15 m.p.g., or so, flashing round Germany in an XJ-S with C.R. Now, our Clive is a great Jaguar man and he certainly has done everything in his power to make sure that I got to know the marque properly. There is no doubt in my mind that the S had the toughest test of all the cars that passed through Standard House last year.

While we were in Germany I drove a couple of Opel Kadett GT/E injection coupes and was extremely impressed with the road car, which is now available in Britain with its five-speed gearbox. I had a brief fling in a rally Kadett with a claimed 200 horsepower extracted from its cam-in-head engine, and found it very agile on forest tracks: unfortunately the team singularly failed to find reliability to complement the car’s undoubted potential.

C.R.’s nose for nice cars also found me at Aston Martin’s revival party, driving an automatic model for an afternoon. This aluminium V8-powered coupe of undisclosed power was hard pushed to exceed 120 m.p.h., but I thought the handling was terrific. Very little body roll and excellent steering characterise what must be a pretty hefty car.

Yes, I did try the Rover, in fact three of them at different stages, but I don’t think of it in the BMW-Mercedes sense, more of a stepping stone from “Granadaland” to Jaguar prestige. I still think we ought to have a 3-litre Jaguar to cope with the two West German marques.

I encountered Renaults again on a trip to Woodstock in Oxfordshire. This left me with very rude thoughts about their coupe’s steering, but quite happy to record around 40 m.p.g. in the 5 GTL, despite my active abuse of the car.

During the early Summer I began to succumb to the effect of the motorcycle propaganda machine within this building. As travel costs have risen some of our staff have hopped over to two wheels on a regular basis, with the result that four Hondas (a pair of 400Fs, a CB200 and a 125) are usually parked downstairs alongside Motorcycle Sport’s Honda 750. Before the commitment to building a Group I rally engine for the Escort, I had been seriously considering purchasing a Honda 400F myself and so it was that I found myself at the Guild of Motoring Writers’ motorcycle test day, comparing the merits of that model against Kawasaki’s two-stroke 400 triple. At that time Yamaha and Suzuki were ineligible to be present. so I was not able to try all the relevant models together. However, I made up for that with rides on three big BMWs, a 50 cc. sports moped that managed 50 m.p.h. at 8,000 r.p.m. in top, all very enjoyable in that Summer heat.

The only thing I do find disconcerting about motorcycling quickly now, compared with fast cars at the same track is that the bikes’ cornering capabilities seem to have made little, if any, progress compared to the terrific abilities we now take for granted on quite mundane four-wheelers. Occasionally I have to test in the company of the motorcycle press at this particular track and I am astounded how bad most of the Oriental machinery seems to be in this respect, and how brave those journalists are as they hurtle round at 100 m.p.h., clambering all over the frame of some hostile near-1-litre monster.

D.S.J. insists that we do far too many “Alfaspuds and the like”, but I must say that I found these small cars as entertaining as ever in 1976. I had a 1600 (converted by Gordon Allen), an ordinary 19,000-mile Ti and a new 5M and honestly enjoyed all of them. It is the only f.w.d. car I know of where it really is hard to tell that the drive is at the front. Whilst on the Alfa front it’s worth mentioning that I had the GTV 2-litre Alfetta under most conditions on odd occasions, and it was one of those cars that would get out of the house to drive, just for the sake of it. I also ended up doing the action photography for the same car—which spent a very long time in our hands—and emerged happy at having tricked such a well-balanced car into so much oversteer. The exhilaration comes at being able to hold a slide at pretty well any angle on a wet surface. On the road, one just tends to slip round corners with no fuss or bother, cosseted by the softest ride of any sporting saloon I have driven.

A trip to Sweden brought me into contact with various Saabs that were documented at the time, but I subsequently had a 99EMS in Britain and found it a most surprising car. Complete with 2-litre injected engine, the EMS costs a few hundred pounds more than BMW’s 320i and suffers from a bad legal limit engine/body resonance. However, it had taut handling, great brakes and really did feel very strong indeed. It was a most intriguing combination of sturdiness and speed that was unique in my experience.

While others are attacked for BMW bias on the magazine, I am assaulted for writing too much about Lancias. Last year was thick with them, including the Stratos and the 2-litre HPE and Coupe, plus the 2.5-litre, flat-four Gamma introduction. The Stratos is a car I’ll never forget, a properly built “special” that has 145+ m.p.h. capability: terrific, but you need another car to back it up. The Gamma I think a mistake for the four-cylinder engine in this class and price bracket, while both 2-litre cars are still good value for money.

In July I went to the Spa 24-Hour race in an Opel 1.9. Ascona. This was quite a good choice, the car demanded little and gave a lot of pleasure when hustled along country roads. We drove some Go-Karts while I was there, and I thoroughly enjoyed an evil session playing racers with the local hot-shots, culminating in my “T-boning” the chief hooligan and striking a notable blow to Anglo-Belgian relations. I did regret not participating in the Spa 24-Hour race, having finished two of them I know what satisfaction can come from a good run at Spa. I still enjoyed the race more than any other sporting event I attended last year, and I am pleased to hear that the original long road circuit will, after all, be pressed into action once more for this year’s non-Championship edition, to he held on July 23rd/24th.

Rare marques for me are Volvo and Mercedes. I did the W123 Mercedes introduction story in Germany and adjudged it the best manufacturer’s trip for the best new product of the year.

Volvo? They laid on a good day at wet Goodwood with their 343 car, which takes the old DAF transmission and Renault engine a step further within a comfortably appointed small car. The price is steep, but the Volvo customer is not an easy one to define. The company seem to be exceptionally alert on the marketing front and I am sure they will make a commercial success of the car. Like the Saab I discussed earlier, the 343 offers unique features, and that is nice in these days of uniformity.

Japanese cars? Some time ago I enjoyed a Toyota Celica 1600 GT twin-cam for everything except the strong understeer, and I see that it is back on the market in 2-litre guise. Otherwise I am pretty indifferent to their normal road cars and I think companies such as Datsun feel the same about us, judging from the Z-car’s special order status these days.

Apart from my own Ford, I also drove the new Cortinas and the Capri 3000S. I always thought the 3-litre Capri was an unusual and unappreciated car these days, a big lusty engine and rude road manners offered at a bargain basement price. It has changed its spots a bit today though and the engine is anaemic by 3-litre standards, while the handling of the demonstrator was positively towards good. Power steering is standard and the engine now has mild emission equipment modifications. So we have now gone the full circle in 3-litre Capri development and could justify another engine power boost, this time a little happier that the chassis can cope. As it stands the 3-litre Capri still offers near 120 m.p.h. performance and acceleration comparable with prestige cars of treble its price.

Discussing cars such as the Cortina in Motor Sport is a contradiction in many of the sporting purists’ minds, but I think that is definitely mistaken snobbery these days. Most of us have to travel around in ordinary cars, or perhaps by ordinary cars through or for a business, and it is definitely worth discussing their merits. A diet of supercars leads to only a small minority interest ultimately, and you very quickly run out of cars that have any right to be labelled super in any way. In fact I found that many of the really expensive cars do not have ventilation systems or even suspension systems that are as effective as a modern Ford. A competent driver can do astonishing things with the latest Cortina and never feel in the least distressed, whereas some of the exotics are verging on dangerous long before the limit of their engine’s fabled output (often noticeably absent on customers’ cars, outside the respected names) and downright lethal when confronted with wet roads.

BMWs are an emotive subject at Standard House. We currently have a 1602, a 2002Tii, a 633 CSi and a 520i, so it is the most numerous brand to be seen here. I found the 633 very enjoyable for my hardest solo motoring of the year. I think I put more pressure on it even than the Jaguar, but for much shorter periods of course. It was far from perfect, and having subsequently driven Jaguar’s £8,000 XJ 4.2C I would say that the luxury coupe customer would be better off buying British, but my personal inclination (given that I could spend an extra £7,000 or so!) would be for the BMW because it was such a gratifying car to drive hard. The Jaguar soothed me, the BMW excited the driver throughout. Time will tell if Leyland’s competition programme of the XJ 5.3 C will bring a more sporting tone to the Coventry car.

The other BMW that came my way was the improved 528 and I think it’s sufficient to say that this car suited my particular needs better than any other car. The 528 is the sensible car for my needs, but I could well understand the enthusiast buying a Porsche 911, even secondhand, instead!

I was sorry that Lotus formed such a fractional part of my diet last year. It really is extraordinarily difficult to get hold of a press car these days (by far the hardest of any maker that we would like to deal with) and I had just a few laps in an Esprit to remind me of the days when Elans formed an eagerly awaited part of my yearly diet. After all, I even used to drive tuned Europas regularly and I built a Lotus Seven in years gone by. I drove what is now the Caterham Seven at our test track and was delighted to find all that shattering 125 b.h.p. Twin Cam performance could be transmitted to the road so effectively that I could drive my way around the outside of hard-pushed, squealing saloons, and even make appropriate gestures without the ignominy of spinning it all the way.—J.W.